Monday, June 14, 2010

the star: Ottawa fails to lead on isotopes

toronto star: expert opinion- ottawa fails to lead on isotopes

Jatin Nathwani
Donald Wallace

In 2007 Canada and the world were thrust into a major medical crisis in a remarkably short period of time. Unbeknownst to most Canadians, our nation was the world’s leading supplier of medical isotopes and the source of those isotopes — the National Research Universal reactor at Chalk River, operated by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. — had been ordered shut down by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

The nuclear medicine community quickly made politicians aware of the repercussions of this action. With more than 1 million medical procedures using isotopes each year in Canada, they were listened to. In an extraordinary series of events, legislation was introduced in the Commons to overrule the safety commission, witnesses were heard on the floor of the chamber and a bill was passed with all-party support in a single day. The NRU reactor was restarted within a week. A month later, the government fired the head of the safety commission, Linda Keen.

Much has happened since December 2007. If anything, the crisis has only deepened. The NRU reactor functioned reasonably well between December 2007 and May 2009, when it was again shut down automatically by a power outage. A leak of heavy water was subsequently discovered and the reactor has been out of action ever since. Despite many promises by AECL, the restart date has been pushed back again and again.

To make matters much worse, a Dutch reactor that also supplies isotopes was shut down for maintenance in February for six months. These two reactors had supplied two-thirds of the world’s medical isotopes.

Last year was especially eventful on the isotope front. In June 2009, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that Canada was getting out of the isotopes business altogether, abandoning a 60-year history of global leadership. Then natural resources minister Lisa Raitt was caught on tape saying that the isotope issue was “sexy . . . radioactive leaks . . . cancer.” The minister’s musings to an aide aside, she also commissioned an expert panel to look at the isotopes issue; it reported late last year.

Among its recommendations, the expert panel emphasized the need for Canada to:

* Diversify all aspects of the isotope supply chain to prevent the disastrous consequences we’ve seen.
* Construct a new multi-purpose research reactor that would also produce isotopes.
* Re-examine the decision by AECL two year ago to cancel the replacement program for the NRU.
* Support research and development for non-reactor-based sources of isotopes.
* Promote greater use of isotopes in medical imaging.

The Harper government’s response to the panel came at the end of March and in the federal budget. Most significantly, the government chose a path that fails to deliver a reasonable degree of certainty to the supply of isotopes.

The government’s decision to ignore the pivotal recommendation concerning a new multi-purpose reactor should be deeply troubling to all Canadians. A brave recommendation that would put us on a sustainable path to a robust supply was pushed aside. The modest financial support in the budget will go instead to the search for alternative isotope sources, an approach that remains unproven. Cleverly disguised as support for innovation in the cyclotron option, the government strategy lacks a coherent long-term vision required to move us away from week-to-week crisis management.

Canada has lurched from crisis to crisis over the past three years. Equipment failures in old reactors are a real problem but equally the absence of a coherent long-term strategy has left its mark. We have also learned that the international community has failed to work together to chart a way forward. But today, despite this painful awareness, we are in a worse place than we were in December 2007. The world’s two major isotope-producing reactors — one of them Canadian — are out of action.

This issue is really about ensuring the best health care for Canadians and pursuing cutting-edge research to assist this worthy goal. We’re good at the isotopes business, actually very good. The expert panel issued a challenge to the federal government to lead. Leadership requires courage and a coherent view of the future that integrates the demands of the health-care system with the promise of a robust supply of isotopes.

Other countries have made isotopes a key priority, including the Dutch, the Belgians, the South Africans and the Australians. If they can take bold actions, why won’t Canada?

Jatin Nathwani is professor and Ontario Research Chair in Public Policy for Sustainable Energy at the University of Waterloo. Donald Wallace is a Toronto-based consultant. They are editors of Canada’s Isotope Crisis: What’s Next? published by McGill-Queen’s University Press and the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University.

isotope plan shortsighted say experts: montreal gazette

OTTAWA — The global medical isotope shortage, prompted by the shutdown of Canada’s main nuclear reactor, has dragged on for more than a year now but, rather than dwelling on the difficulties, some nuclear-medicine experts are concerned about the future, and the direction the federal government is taking Canada on the isotope file.

The National Research Universal reactor in Chalk River, Ont., which produces 30 to 40 per cent of the global supply of the most commonly used isotope, was shut down in May 2009 because of a leak. The complex repairs to the 50-year-old reactor are expected to be complete by midsummer — and it can’t come back online soon enough for health-care professionals.

For the past year, they’ve been using alternative medical procedures and juggling appointments for patients, trying to keep waiting lists short. Isotopes, which are used in diagnostic imaging and in cancer treatments, must be used within hours of arriving at a facility because of the radioactive material they contain.

Canada has been relying on imports from the handful of other countries that have reactors, and that’s meant an unsteady supply chain that can easily be disrupted, say by a volcanic ash cloud that wreaks havoc on air transportation.

Dr. Doug Abrams, head of the Canadian Society of Nuclear Medicine, said his field is used to occasional supply disruptions but has never dealt with an extended shortage like this before.

“I think the people on the ground have done a wonderful job,” he said.

The burden of an isotope shortage falls heaviest on the provinces, who deliver health-care, and the frontline workers, but Health Canada was useful in co-ordinating the sharing of information about supplies between jurisdictions, for example, and providing regular updates, said Abrams.

In the coming months, there will likely be quarrels over financial compensation. The federal government is responsible for securing a stable isotope supply for the provinces, and in the absence of that supply, the provinces have had to dig deep in their pockets to cover the costs of importing them, and the increased cost of the isotopes themselves.

Prices jumped worldwide because of the limited supply and they are expected to continue to climb for the foreseeable future.

What the future holds is a cause of some concern to Abrams and others, including Dr. Eric Turcotte, a nuclear-medicine specialist who heads the Molecular Imaging Centre of Sherbrooke in Quebec.

Turcotte was a member of the expert panel appointed by the federal government exactly one year ago this week to advise it on the best options for assuring the country of a stable supply of isotopes.

“I think that the government did a good job in the short-term to help the crisis,” Turcotte said. “My concern is more in the medium and long-term. Are we going in a good direction?”

Building a new reactor to replace the current aging one, which will likely be shut down for good in 2016, was considered the best option by the panel.

The government, however, isn’t going that route and recently announced that $35 million is up for grabs over the next two years for companies developing new sources of isotopes that don’t involve a nuclear reactor.

“All members of the panel were a bit disappointed with the decision of the government,” said Turcotte.

The panel does support developing new technologies, but not to be the primary source of isotopes, he said.

Canada did build replacements for the reactor in Chalk River, but those reactors sit idle because of a string of technical and other problems. They were never licensed to operate and the project was scrapped for good in 2008 by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

“Canada has some of the greatest minds in the world and we are giving them the tools they need to diversify our sources of medical isotopes and reduce the production of radioactive waste,” Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis said in a statement to Canwest News Service explaining the government’s decision.

“Simply replacing the NRU would not develop the diversity and redundancy that the panel believed were necessary for security of supply.”

Paradis said the estimated $1 billion cost of a new reactor would be an “irresponsible” investment.

So now, millions of dollars will go into developing what are known as accelerator technologies. Turcotte is worried that after a year or two of work they may not prove to be commercially viable sources of isotopes and Canada will be back at Square 1 with no solid plan for isotope production post-2016.

The Harper government has said it wants out of the reactor business but if there was a change of heart, or, a change in government and a subsequent policy reversal, a new reactor would take at least five years to build.

“We are going against the clock. . . . We don’t have any time to waste,” said Turcotte.

Abrams, head of the nuclear medicine field in Canada, said there is “a lot of controversy” over the government’s approach and focusing on the new technologies only is running a risk.

“If these don’t prove feasible, we haven’t moved any further in any other direction,” he said.

Read more: montreal gazette: isotope plans short-sighted

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

cbc news: Nuclear researcher critical of decision to not build a new chalk river reactor

Canada should replace the reactor that produces medical isotopes to honour its commitments, U.S.-based nuclear medicine experts say.

On Monday, Dr. Robert Atcher, past president of the Society of Nuclear Medicine, criticized the federal government's decision to scrap the Maple reactors that were meant to replace the National Research Universal Reactor at Chalk River, Ont.

In May 2009, the federal government convened an expert panel to assess proposals for new sources of medical isotopes. Last November, the panel recommended building a multi-purpose research reactor to guarantee supply of medical isotopes, while saying the reactor's other missions, such as scientific research, would help justify the costs.

"The expert panel report actually suggested that there be a replacement for the NRU," Atcher told a news conference at the society's annual meeting in Salt Lake City.

"Lacking the ability the bring the Maples back online, at least commit to doing what their expert panel suggested, and that is to replace NRU and do it in a timetable that would fit with the 2016 deadline that the Canadian government gave for the operations of that reactor."

Atcher called on the federal government to honour its commitment to provide a sustainable, long-term supply of medical isotopes, noting the U.S. put off developing its own isotope-producing reactors based on assurances from the Canadian government and industry.

The federal Conservative government scrapped the Maple project two years ago, saying it was millions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.
Reactor repairs

NRU supplied a third of the world's medical isotopes until Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. shut it down last May after it found a pinprick-sized radioactive water leak.

AECL originally said the reactor would be off line for a month, then three months, then six months. Last week, ACEL said 98 per cent of the weld repairs are complete and it now estimates isotope production will resume "by the end of July."

The remaining repairs are probably the most complex and difficult to do, Atcher said.

In April, the federal government ruled out its expert panel's recommendation to build a new nuclear reactor to produce medical isotopes, saying the cost of $1 billion was too high, it would take too long, and the sale of isotopes would never recover the cost.

The panel had said the NRU replacement would serve not only the isotope production needs for North America, but also supply neutrons for material sciences, fuel development and power reactor production, Atcher said.

A U.S. bill before the Senate encourages creation of domestic manufacturers of isotopes and would phase out the use of highly enriched uranium to meet non-proliferation goals.

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